One of the reasons America's idiotic war on drugs has existed as a punitive project rather than a therapeutic one is because it's easier to write off drug addicts as losers with no self-control instead of damaged people deserving of sympathy. The nation is a rat race for money, and the fewer people competing for that money the better, so who cares if some sad guy addicted to crack gets thrown in jail for years on end? More for me.
It becomes harder to hold onto that kind of wrongheaded selfishness the more you discover that "scary drug addicts" might actually just be human beings who are down on their luck and need some help, not solitary confinement. We now have decades of research that suggests America's drug problem could be better handled with treatment programs than jails. Today comes another study that puts forth the notion that, in a clinical environment, people who continually use harmful drugs—meth, crack, etc.—will frequently stop doing the drugs if you offer them opportunities for economic advancement.
At the start of each day, as researchers watched behind a one-way mirror, a nurse would place a certain amount of crack in a pipe—the dose varied daily—and light it. While smoking, the participant was blindfolded so he couldn’t see the size of that day’s dose.
Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.
When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.
When meth started tearing up American communities the way crack had, Hart replaced crack with meth and got the same results—"similarly rational decisions," as the New York Times put it. Furthermore, when the financial incentive was raised from $5 to $20, every single drug addict, on crack and meth, took the money over the drugs. Lest you should think choosing the money was merely a cash grab to rush off and buy more substances that night, anyone participating in the study had to agree to live in a hospital ward for several weeks and have their substance abuse tracked. They could also only collect their cash and gift certificates after the completion of the study.
Hart, who grew up in a crack-addled community, says 80 to 90 percent of people who use crack and meth don't even get addicted in the first place. "And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures," he adds.
Those caricatures, of course, are of the dead-eyed crack zombies Americans saw depicted throughout the '80s and '90s, people who, no matter what, were irrationally lost to their addiction and were incapable of making the choice to not smoke crack. Hart says drug treatment and providing economic opportunities are not a panacea, but he says, "If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure."